The Theological Meaning of Luke’s Account of the Transfiguration
G. K. Pennington
The Theological Meaning of Luke’s Account of the Transfiguration
The synoptic gospels all record the transfiguration and show similar information with minor variations in detail. Studies often focus on comparisons, discussions of redaction, or similar issues. These studies are important but it is possible to become so involved in the analysis that the theological purpose is neglected. Allison A. Trites is correct when he states the need to honor the literary choices made by the writers of the gospels. “Each gospel writer was a theologian in his own right, and his editorial arrangement quite naturally reflected his special aims and objectives.” Stuart Hall agrees that the variations in Luke’s account “reveal his purposes.” This study will look for what Luke meant for his recording of the transfiguration to accomplish in the context of his “orderly account.”
The sources for Luke’s gospel and his goal.
It is not a surprise that there is evidence of multiple sources. Luke tells us of his interest in order and accuracy as a part of the gospel’s introduction. He says that he relied on the “eyewitnesses and servants of the word.” (Luke. 1:2) He clearly is drawing from the experience, knowledge and perhaps written works of others. Some commentators emphasize Luke’s reliance on the gospel of Mark or the “Q” source. “Almost all scholars begin with the basic assumption that Mark’s account was the primary source ...” The synoptic problem provides us with some difficult questions but it does not change the basic meaning of Luke’s work.
Luke’s goal was to provide a reasonable base of assurance for anyone who reads his account of the life of Jesus. Peter Renju identifies the witnesses and sources as reasonable factors for the differences in this gospel. Speaking of Luke he says; “He did his research and arrived at a presentation of Jesus that is unique to his gospel.” Renju gives a summation for the uniqueness of Luke as either “special sources ... or to his particular understanding of the message and mission of Jesus.” This is what molds both this gospel and its transfiguration account.
Themes in the gospel of Luke.
The transfiguration is related to some of Luke’s key themes. Renju views Luke’s presentation of Jesus as that of “a liberator, [and] a savior.” In the transfiguration he makes his case for this from the exodus notion of Luke. 9:31. He says; “...the transfiguration in Luke is a metaphor in which there are references to Jesus’ mission and role, that is, his mission as savior and liberator.”
Another theme that follows Luke’s stated goal is the issue “Who is Jesus?” The answer to this question is the base for the security of the believer and the purpose for this account of his life. Reid’s conclusion after making the case for a special Lukan source is; “...in its final form, [Luke’s Gospel] supplies one of the answers to Herod’s question in 9:9, ‘Who is this?’” Reid expands this relation to Herod’s question by noting nine occasions in Luke 9:10-56 where this question is answered.
While I agree with the conclusion Reid draws, she is shortsighted in that the question “Who is this?” flows from one end of Luke to the other. We can observe Luke’s frequent use of the terms “Christ” and “Son of Man” as part of the answer. We also see the birth narrative, the announcements at Jesus’ baptism, the transfiguration, and the conclusion of the gospel, “Then they worshipped him...” Luke 24:52, all addressing “Who is this?”
Another major theme of Luke is the “kingdom of God”. This is evident in the context of the Transfiguration. There are other themes in this gospel but these are the most pertinent to our discussion.
Making Known The Divine Glory.
Trites explains the absence of the transfiguration in John’s gospel as seeing “the whole of Christ’s life as a revelation of the divine glory.” One purpose for all the synoptics including the transfiguration account may be to move beyond the basic events of the life of Jesus and open up a higher sense of Christology.
Seeing this event from Theophilus perspective.
What might Luke’s readers think and feel as they hear his account of the transfiguration? The story would captivate their minds as they reflected on parallels from redemptive history.
Would they stagger at the “eight days” in Luke 9:28 instead of Matthew’s and Mark’s “six days”. If so they would miss the point that about a week “...after Jesus said this, ...” Luke 9:28 This statement connects the transfiguration to the context of Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ of God, the suffering predictions, and the kingdom prophecy.
Perhaps they would identify that the transfiguration occurred in conjunction with a time of prayer. This would have occasioned their recall of prayer as a theme also found in this gospel being closely related to major events.
Moses and Elijah.
Theophilus may have heard stories about the transfiguration but Luke was adding to his account the purpose for the conversation with the two men. These were not just any men but two of the prominent people in Israel’s redemptive history. One was Moses, the figure of such authority that when he speaks his is the “voice of law.” “...Moses functions as the symbolic embodiment of Israel’s torah.” He was the leader of the exodus from Egypt, a savior and deliverer of his time. Even his death and burial had a traditional mystique.
The other man was Elijah, whose role is debated with some casting him as only a prophet. Others see his purpose as being eschatological with other prophets being more representative of the prophetic line. “In the inter-testamental period Elijah is remembered not as the quintessential prophet but rather as the object of a prophetic promise.”
Scripture links Moses and Elijah in the prophecy of Mal. 4:4-5. John Nolland’s summary of options is “...Moses and Elijah represent, in effect, the sweep of the unfolding of God’s purposes leading on to the role of Jesus.” Gause links Elijah’s presence to the eschatological end of Malachi’s prophecy about him.
The person with knowledge of redemptive history probably would have recalled the great deeds and struggles of life these two had experienced. Some may have drawn the parallel of their seemingly uncompleted work being carried on by successors. The names of these successors had identical meanings to that of Jesus, “God or Jehovah is salvation.” That could have caused readers to think “Who will be the successor to Jesus?’ An overriding thought must have been, “Where does Jesus stand in relation to these two great men?”
Discussion of the Exodus.
Hearing the word “exodus” the readers of Luke would have thought of the original deliverance under Moses. Baladacci ties Jesus’ death to the “exodus” and refers to it as the “central Lukan concern in the T [transfiguration]...” To emphasize the point he says, “...this is in fact a central redactional concern ...” Gause takes “exodus” to incorporate “all the redemptive activity tha would take place in Jerusalem. in Jesus’ last days.”
Clearly, a great event was on the horizon. Jesus was immersed in what was going to occur, and the climax would be in Jerusalem. The way this functions in Luke is that from this point forward Jesus’ movement in the gospel account is persistently, physically, emotionally, and spiritually toward that end. “...the purpose of His life can be found in the word used in verse 31, “exodus.” Wilhelm Michaelis considers the use of exodoj (ecdon)in Luke 9:31 to be a pointed reference to the end of Jesus’ life and not a focus toward the redemptive act of resurrection.
Only in the eschatological view of what Jesus accomplished at Jerusalem does the lone Jesus standing on the mountain find his full meaning. As Trites has said:
Moses could not cure hardness of heart ... ...and Elijah could not conquer vindictiveness ... ...only in the person and work of Christ did mankind receive God’s final word for the human predicament....”
Gause suggests that because of the disciples’ being “very sleepy” (Luke 9:32) that the transfiguration was a night event. What the apostles observed was not natural and soon “they became fully awake” Luke 9:32
Awed by what he observed, even though Luke indicates that Moses and Elijah had left already, Peter offered to build structures to honor them. To Nolland this seems to be an “innocent Christological error: he simply may be thinking of capturing forever this scene which represents the whole drama of salvation from Exodus to the eschaton.”
A cloud and a voice.
With the appearance of the cloud Luke’s readers likely would have started recalling past events. There were over forty references to the “cloud” in the torah related to “the glory of the Lord”, “Sinai”, or the “tent of meeting” all indicating God is present.
The picture was almost inescapable. A mountain, a figure glowing similar to Moses at Sinai, a cloud that by itself invokes fear, and a voice that recalls the voice from the cloud at Sinai! These are the things of the making of covenants and kingdoms. In retrospect, Luke will portray this as a life-changing moment for Jesus since from here He sets out for Jerusalem. This moment is reminiscent of his baptism that served as a doorway into his ministry.
Theophilus pores over the event because it is webbed into the whole gospel. It is anchored in the eschatological teaching of scripture. It flows from Israel’s redemptive history. The voice at Jesus’ baptism had addressed him and had given him assurance. This time the voice gave assurance and command to the disciples and all who would read Luke’s gospel. It puts Jesus’ glorification and authority on the basis that He is the Son of God.
The voice is silent, the cloud gone, Moses and Elijah are nowhere to be found. Jesus is alone and ready to walk down the mountain and do what no one else can do. The journey to Jerusalem, toward death, burial, and resurrection is not unexpected. It has been discussed with God’s servants experienced in “exodus”.
How does Luke’s transfiguration function for us?
For us this pericope serves the goal of encouraging and strengthening our faith in Jesus. It does this as an integrated part of Luke’s gospel and turns us to the final purpose for his incarnation. It accents his glory, his authority, and his mission. It ties the roots and heart of Israel’s history to the culmination of God’s incarnation and atonement for us. It accents that the cross meant for our justification was planned and God declared the one on it “mine.”
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Gause, Rufus H. “The Lukan Transfiguration account, Luke’s Pre-Crucifixion Presentation of the Exalted Lord in the Glory of the Kingdom of God.” Theses, Emory University, 1975, Microfilm.
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__________ “Voices and Angels: What Were They Talking About at the Transfiguration? A Redaction-Critical Study of Luke 9:28-36.” Biblical Research 34 (1989):19-31.
Renju, Peter M. “The Exodus of Jesus (Luke 9:31).” The Bible Translator 46 (April 1995):213-218.
Trites, Allison A. “The Transfiguration in the Theology of Luke: Some Redactional Links.” The Glory of Christ in the New Testament, ed. L.D. Hurst and N.T. Wright, 71-82. New York: Oxford, 1987.
____________ “The Transfiguration of Jesus: The Gospel in Microcosm.” The Evangelical Quarterly 51 no.2 (April-June 1979}: 67-79.
 As an example, Barbara Reid, noting the similarities of sequence in the synoptics, cites fifteen elements following true to form in all the accounts. She recognizes the comparable context between accounts, similarities in language, then starts the case for a separate Lukan source. Barbara Reid, “Voices and Angels: What Were They Talking About at the Transfiguration? A Redaction-Critical Study of Luke 9:28-36,” Biblical Research 34 (1990): 20.